By Jonathan Easley and Justin Sink - 08/15/12 09:50 PM EDT
Mitt Romney launched an aggressive counteroffensive this week intended to cut into one of President Obama's biggest advantages in the presidential race: Voters like him.
Polls showing Obama with a consistent edge in “likability” over the stiffer Romney have worried Republicans.
Romney's aides said his comments that Obama should take his “campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago” reflect real anger with the tone of the president's campaign, but they acknowledged the counterattack is also strategic.
“We're seeing that the president’s outrageous attacks are beginning to take a toll on his image,” a senior Romney adviser said. “Keep in mind we're only in August. These kind of attacks are not going to wear well with voters, especially given the image that the president has built up as someone who's supposed to transcend politics as usual.”
Romney’s tougher attacks show the GOP’s determination to respond quickly and forcefully to Obama — and avoid being seen as too timid. The presidential bids of Massachusetts Democrats Sen. John Kerry and Michael Dukakis floundered when they didn’t react strongly against attacks on their records.
Separately, GOP strategists noted the more aggressive posture from Romney coincides with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) joining the ticket. Romney’s attacks on Obama as a divisive leader echo a message Ryan has been honing for months.
Obama’s favorability rating has buoyed him in the polls, even as voters maintain a negative view of how he’s handled the economy. According to a CNN-ORC poll released earlier this month, 54 percent said they have a positive view of the president, compared to 44 who held a negative view.
Romney, on the other hand, suffered from historically low favorability ratings throughout the Republican primaries. He saw a spike once he became the party’s presumptive nominee, but in July and August his favorability rating drifted back into negative territory as Obama’s campaign intensified its attacks.
According to the CNN poll, Romney has a 47 percent positive and a 48 percent negative rating, a 6-point increase in negativity over the same poll from July. Romney fares even worse among independents, with only 40 percent saying they viewed him favorably, against 52 negative.
The Romney campaign has increasingly attacked the Obama campaign's tactics in recent days.
In a new television ad called “America Deserves Better,” the narrator questions Obama’s character for trying “to use the tragedy of a woman’s death for political gain.”
The ad was in response to an ad by the pro-Obama super-PAC Priorities USA ad that suggested Romney’s old private equity firm Bain Capital was responsible for the death of a woman with cancer.
The Romney campaign and independent fact checkers have called the ad unfair, pointing out that the woman died some six years after her widow, a steelworker, was laid off by Bain Capital and that she held her own insurance at the time.
The campaign also has bristled at attempts by White House and Obama campaign officials to distance themselves from the ad, pointing out the same steelworker appeared on an Obama campaign conference call.
Romney’s toughest line in the campaign yet, that Obama should take his campaign of “hate” back to Chicago, followed Vice President Biden’s racially-tinged remarks Tuesday that the GOP ticket would “put y’all back in chains.”
But the Romney retort also seemed to reflect the strategy. Romney’s toughest words came not at an afternoon rally that would have been his first opportunity to fire back at Biden, but at a later event Tuesday evening.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul made negative campaigning a central point in her daily email to the press on Wednesday and sought to portray the Romney campaign as taking the high road.
“Meanwhile, Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan continue to offer their positive vision to grow our economy, create jobs, and strengthen the middle class,” she wrote. “Last night in Ohio, Gov. Romney delivered a speech highlighting his pro-growth, pro-business agenda as president.”
Republican strategists like Romney’s new tactic.
“I think it’s a well-tested political strategy to accuse the other side of being too negative and divisive,” one GOP strategist told The Hill. “[Negative campaigning] is something voters consciously may tell you they loathe, but subconsciously it works. So it makes sense for [the Romney campaign] to point out to voters that this is what the Obama campaign is doing.”
At the same time, this week’s focus on Obama’s rhetoric has again shifted the topic from the economy, which is supposed to be Romney’s best argument for the presidency. Every day the focus is not on jobs and the economy, some Republicans think, is a lost day for Romney.
There is some speculation that the addition of Ryan to the ticket was the impetus for the sudden change in messaging. Ryan has been on message that the president is a “divisive” leader for months now. In an October speech to the Heritage Foundation, he accused the president of “preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment.”
Those comments are similar to Romney’s late Tuesday charge on the campaign trail, in which he said “this is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like,” and alleged the Obama campaign strategy was to “smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51 percent of the pieces.”
“Certainly [Ryan] has an influence on the strategy the Romney campaign is putting in place and moving forward,” the GOP strategist told The Hill. “That’s probably a good thing, as Romney has been insulated as the presumptive nominee for several months now. I’m sure [Ryan] is now translating to Romney what he’s been hearing for months, that you guys need to fight back, so he’s probably having some influence on that change in direction the campaign has taken, and certainly that’s what Republican voters are looking for.”
— Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.